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Now that The New Yorker has decided to return its 2019 National Magazine Award, the American Society of Magazine Editors has to decide if they will present the award to one of the other six finalists.
“It will be a two step process,” explained Sid Holt, CEO of ASME, regarding a planned Jan. 28 virtual board meeting to consider how to proceed given the unusual circumstances. “First the board will have to decide if they are going to give any award, and then who that might be if we decide to award a new prize for feature writing.”
The Conde Nast publication decided to return its 2019 feature writing award after an internal probe raised questions about the authenticity of the sources interviewed for “A Theory of Relativity,” a story about a Japanese “family rental” service by Elif Batuman.
A National Magazine Award, known as an “Ellie,” is among the most coveted awards in the glossy magazine world and the feature-writing prize is particularly competitive. It’s the first time the board has grappled with this issue in the prestigious award’s 55-year history.
The first runner-up will be an article by Jonah Peretti’s Buzzfeed, also from 2018, according to an insider. The Buzzfeed story — entitled, “We Saw Nuns Kill Children: The Ghosts of St. Joseph’s Catholic Orphanage” and set in 1960s Virginia — was edited by the then-editor-in-chief Ben Smith, now media columnist at the New York Times, and written by Christine Kenneally. It will most likely become the recipient if the board decides to go that route, the insider said.
Other stories in line for the top honor are linked to a who’s who of celebrity editors, including Jay Fielden of Esquire for “This Place is Crazy,” written by Attica Correctional Facility inmate John L. Lennon; Adam Moss of New York magazine for “Everyone Believed Larry Nassar,” written by Kerry Howley on the disgraced Olympic gymnastic trainer; and Michael Caruso of Smithsonian for “Taming the Lionfish” by Jeff MacGregor.
Another finalist was the Washington Post’s “What Do We Owe Her Now” by Elizabeth Bruenig, edited by editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, on a young girl who was raped years earlier and shamed by the community entitled. And from the West Coast came a finalist from California Sunday Magazine’s for “A Kingdom from Dust,” about the multi-billion dollar agri-business, edited by Douglas McGray and written by Mark Arax.
The New Yorker returned its award for “A Theory of Relativity” amid concerns that three major sources hoodwinked the writer with fake background stories in order to win favorable coverage for a company involved with providing surrogate family members to lonely people in Japan.
One of the subjects claimed he was a widower said he contracted for a wife and surrogate daughter to share dinner and watch TV. He turned out to be a married actor paid by a company. Another source who claimed to have hired a surrogate dad and husband described herself as a single mom with a young daughter. In real life she was married to the owner of a family rental company featured in the article.
Batuman had used a Japanese translator in her research.
The ruse also got past her editor and a New Yorker fact checker, according to an editor’s note that the David Remnick-helmed weekly affixed to the top of the article on its website in mid-December following a year-and-a-half investigation. The note said it blamed the errors on sources who deceived the staff writer Elif Batuman, not the writer herself.
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